3D CIC 2024 Wrap-up: Bridging Interoperability & Collaboration Gaps

The 3D Collaboration & Interoperability Congress (3D CIC) brought leaders together from across the industry to discuss the latest technologies and best practices for collaborating on 3D projects and sharing 3D data across different software platforms. The event offers a rare opportunity to have extended conversations with many of these experts, learning from their successes and the continued challenges they strive to solve. Here’s what we learned.

Machine readable data exchange will be the first big win for the Model-based Enterprise (MBE):
3D models have evolved to become a vehicle for transferring key manufacturing characteristics and quality inspection information across the enterprise. There’s continuing standardization work to be done, but this is clearly a place where CAD translation to standard data formats (STEP, QIF, etc) and system integration can come together to provide a semi- or fully automated solution for quality inspection and other traditionally manual manufacturing processes. These advancements will help manufacturers deliver quality products at a faster rate to their customers, while reducing engineering error rates, scrap, rework, and other unplanned manufacturing costs. So we don’t need 2D prints any more? We’re “not quite there yet”.

The grass is always greener in other manufacturers’ yards: A big part of this conference is dedicated to sharing 3D data across the digital thread. And many digital thread presentations make it look like they have it all figured out while you are left lagging behind. Their grass sure looks greener. However, it was great to openly hear from most attendees at this event that they are “not quite there yet”. Whether exchanging technical data, or collaborating with internal teams and suppliers, most companies have been unable to fully adopt 3D as standard method of communication across manufacturing and the supply chain. Most manufacturers are overcoming the digital thread myth with modern collaboration and data exchange solutions that fill the gaps between the people that easily work with the technical data and the people that struggle to get it.

The Grass is Greener

Engineering teams support a human-powered digital thread: Engineering teams are stuck on one side of the PLM collaboration gap, searching for ways to move data across the gap to everyone else who needs it. For machine readable data, there are some great systems being put in place to solve this. But for person-to-person collaboration that happens with operations teams, sourcing, contract manufacturers, component suppliers, and customers, bridging the gap is a bigger challenge. Being the crafty problem solvers that they are, engineering teams continue to support a human-powered digital thread across the PLM collaboration gap with a variety of best practices and standard technical data formats to exchange information from the 3D model to other downstream systems and consumers of the information. This is one of the great hidden costs of poor collaboration platforms for manufacturers: Engineers spending countless hours sharing and explaining data by whatever means necessary, creating significant process bottlenecks. One engineer told us they spend a large part of their day drawing arrows and boxes over design screenshots in PowerPoint to provide feedback on design practices. And this is from a company that owns a PLM visualization solution! Content collaboration for manufacturers needs to do better than this.

Supplier collaboration presents the largest collaboration gap challenge: Suppliers come in all shapes and sizes. From large contract manufacturers to small medium manufacturers (SMMs) that provide specialized component manufacturing and part finishing services. When it comes to collaboration and data exchange, the large contract manufacturers closely resemble the OEMs. Send them some product requirements and/or 3D models and their engineering teams will find a way to make it work, using valuable time to bridge gaps in absence of a more efficient system. Most of their work is out of sight out of mind for the OEMs, but the same productivity and efficiency are there for the taking with the right content collaboration solution.

Component and subsystem suppliers are a different story. They receive various design data formats from their customers’ sourcing managers and buyers that introduce questions even before a quote can be provided. When questions escalate, an OEM’s engineer team is brought in with little context. The engineering team wishes they could become more 3D model-based. The sourcing manager is trying to find the cheapest part that can be delivered the fastest. And the supplier simply wants to make a great product for their customer and deliver it on time so they can drive revenue. So while looking at a 3D model is very helpful in some cases, they still need to manufacture to the 2D print. These 3 very different teams of people need a common collaboration language that can’t be found in a singular data format. For these groups, bringing all the back and forth communication into one system that understands the data being discussed is key.

Regardless of who we talked to, it was clear there are a lot of advancements happening in the 3D model-based product development world that focus on modeling standards, data interoperability and systems integration. And if we can connect engineering teams and these data advancements to everyone else who contributes to successful product development, we’ll truly enhance industry 4.0 and digital thread initiatives for all manufacturers.